Review of Palmerston North concert

Fine musicians explore European classical music on period instruments.

Reviewed by Stephen Fisher in Manawatu Standard, 8 May 2018

The intimate surrounds of the Awhina Room in Caccia Birch proved to be the perfect venue for last Sunday evening's concert by Hammers and Horsehair, an ensemble dedicated to presenting early 19th century European classical music played on period instruments.

The original ensemble was a duo consisting of Douglas Mews performing on an authentic square piano and Robert Ibell on the cello, the latter having grown up in Palmerston North. However, for their 2018 tour, they have been joined by soprano Rowena Simpson, allowing them to explore the vocal music of the period for which they have become such strong advocates.

The programme featured works by Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and the little-known Jan Kalivoda, opening with Schubert's The Shepherd on the Rock, which introduced us to the beautiful sounds of this trio, enhanced by the gentle acoustics of the room. Beethoven's gorgeous Sonata in A major for piano and cello completed the first half, an exhilarating performance from two players in tune with each other.

The second half allowed us to take in the sounds of the square piano as Mews gave an evocative performance of selections from Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. Ibell and Mews gave us two delightful Schubert songs before Jackson returned to the concert platform for the three wonderful Kalivoda songs.

This was a memorable evening in the presence of fine musicians.

Review of Motueka concert

Hammers and Horsehair: Period Pieces for Square Piano and Cello
Chanel Arts Centre, Motueka, Saturday 15 September 2016
Reviewed by Ruth Allison in Nelson Mail, 22 September 2016

With their evening tailcoats, vests, wide silk cravats and polished shoes Douglas Mews and Robert Ibell cut a dashing duo on the stage.

Accompanying them a square piano built in 1843 and a splendid 18th century cello, a number of low lit lamps and the evening was set for a mid-19th century drawing room recital in the small but acoustically perfect Chanel Arts Centre. But don’t be fooled by this apparently relaxed and conversational setting. These two gentlemen gave a fine, and technically accomplished performance.

Much of the audience missed Douglas’s delightful playing of Mozart’s 12 Variations of Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman K.265 in their enthusiasm to get a seat and catch up with their neighbours. But perhaps this was part of the plan, friends and family gathering in the evening to be entertained.

What followed was a chatty introduction to the two instruments and an invitation to come at interval and afterwards to see them up close and witness among other things the Victorian signatures written on the inside of the keys of the young members of the family who had once owned the piano.

Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words in D major demonstrated how much beauty could be extracted from these instruments. Beethoven’s moody and virtuosic Sonata in F gave both performers an opportunity to show off their considerable talents.

It was a pleasure to listen to Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 10 played with a lightness and delicacy afforded by this type of piano. It was also a pleasure to hear the mellifluous tone of the cello particularly in the Sonata in G major by Breval.

This was an endearing and fully satisfying evening with two amiable and superb musicians.

Review of Hastings concert

Hammers and Horsehair
Cellist Robert Ibell and Forte-pianist Douglas Mews
St Matthew's Church Guild Room, Hastings, July 15
Music by Beethoven, Breval, Romberg and Mozart.
Reviewed by Peter Williams in Hawkes Bay Today, 18 July 2016

This was a fascinating music experience which took the near-capacity audience back close to the time when the music was composed, in an intimate venue with subdued lighting, the musicians in period dress and playing appropriate instruments.

The 1843 Broadwood square forte-piano - a large oblong box on a stand - had just six octaves and a wooden frame, instead of the seven-plus octaves and iron frame of modern instruments, making it more portable than a modern piano.

The cello was played without a floor spike, instead resting between the player's legs, and two of the strings were made of gut instead of the metal now commonly used. The piano had a lighter touch and the sound was much gentler, matched by the warmth of the cello tone.

Douglas Mews is a specialist forte-pianist and this showed especially in his stylish playing of the Mozart Variations and the Sonata in C K330, where his fingers seemed to dance over the keys in the elaborate configuration of the music.

The combined performances of the two Beethoven works - the witty set of Twelve Variations on a theme from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute at the start of the programme, and the Sonata for Piano and Cello Op 5 No 1 at its close, were entrancing with a variety of expressive, dynamic colour.

There was much of the same in the playing of works by lesser-known composers, Sonata in G by Jean-Baptiste Bréval and Grand Sonata in E-flat major by Bernhard Romberg, where the performers' musicianship again ensured listening pleasure.

The audience was able to get up close to the instruments during the interval, and the performers' enlightening commentary about the music and instruments made this an absorbing experience.

The audience, and those at the other 18 concerts on this nationwide tour, will surely have left with a greater appreciation of numerous things musical.

Review of Lower Hutt concert

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
HAMMERS AND HORSEHAIR - Period Pieces for Fortepiano and 'Cello


Douglas Mews - Fortepiano
Robert Ibell - 'Cello

St.Mark's Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt
Wednesday 13th July,

Review by Peter Mechen


What a fascinating and splendidly-realised concept this was! With instruments able to reproduce authentic-sounding timbres and tones of a specific period, and with two musicians in complete command of those same instruments, and well-versed in the style of performance of that same period, we in the audience at St.Mark's Church, Woburn, in Lower Hutt, were treated to an evening's evocative and authoritative music-making.

Part of the occasion's success was its mix of normal concert procedure with a distinctly un-concert-like degree of informality, of the kind that might well have been the case when these same pieces were premiered. Concert-halls of the kind we've become used to would have been few and far between at that time, and music would have more likely as not been made in private houses belonging to rich or titled patrons of the arts, often with connections to royalty

Different, too, was the etiquette displayed by performers and audience members at these concerts. Until Beethoven famously made a point of insisting that people actually listen to his playing whenever he performed, those attending these gatherings often talked during performances if they weren't particularly interested in the music or the performer or both, or if something or somebody else caught their fancy. Performers, too would wander into and through the audience talking to friends and acquaintances as the fancy took them, often interpolating extra items in their performances in the same spontaneous/wilful manner. 

To us it would have seemed an awful hotchpotch, but audiences of the time would have relished the social aspects of the gathering, as much as (if not more so) than the music. While Douglas Mews and Robert Ibell didn't actually encourage the people in the audience to talk or move around the church while the music was being played, each musician readily talked with us at various stages of the concert, the pianist inviting us to go up to the fortepiano at halftime and have a closer look at it. 

Butbefore the concert proper actually began, Douglas Mews wandered up onto the performing area, sat down, and unannounced, began to softly play the opening of Mozart's charming set of variations "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman", K. 265/300e, whose tune we know as "Twinkle, twinkle, little star". Audience members were still talking, and to-ing and fro-ing, while the music sounded softly, at first as background, and then, as people still arriving got themselves to their seats, and conversations gradually ceased, the music took over.  The fortepiano tones, at first almost apologetically faint and almost "miniature" in effect gradually filled the performing space as the variations grew more elaborate, and our ears became increasingly "attuned" to the instrument's sound-world and its capabilities.

By this time the lights had been dimmed to the effect of candle-light, adding to the atmosphere of a time and place recreated from the past. Once the variations had finished, 'cellist Robert Ibell welcomed us to the concert, encouraging us to imagine we were at a music-making occasion in the music-room of a grand European aristocratic house - though most of the concert's music was written before 1800, Bernhard Romberg's Op. 5 'Cello Sonata, published in 1803, pushed the time-frame into the early nineteenth-century). First up, however, was the winning combination of Mozart and Beethoven, being the latter's 1796 variations on the former's lovely duet "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen" from "The Magic Flute".

What a joy to listen to these two musicians playing into one another's hands so winningly and expressively, allowing the instrumental dialogues such eloquence and energy!  Though fortepiano and 'cello were made at different times (the fortepiano in 1843, and the 'cello from an eighteenth-century maker), their respective voices blended beautifully, neither dominating or overpowering the other. The fortepiano had more elaborate detailing than the 'cello throughout the first handful of variations, the keyboard writing showing extraordinary inventiveness - one of the sequences featured a "sighing" cello figure over an intricate piano part, while another employed an invigorating running-bass on the 'cello beneath garrulous keyboard elaborations.

Not all was "tally-ho and high jinks", however, with variations 10 and 11 taking a sombre, almost tragic turn, the keyboard dominating the first of these while the 'cello's deep-toned lament garnered our sympathies throughout the second. All was swept away by the waltz-time final variation, delivered with great panache from both players throughout, including a couple of modulatory swerves and a cheeky reprise, right up to the deliciously po-faced ending.

Robert Ibell talked about the 'cello he was using, an original 18th Century instrument gifted to him by his teacher, Judith Hyatt, and once owned by Greta Ostova, from Czechoslovakia, who came to New Zealand in 1940 to escape Nazi oppression, and eventually became a founding member of the National Orchestra (now the NZSO). The instrument's rich bass and plaintive treble was very much in evidence in the brilliantly-written Sonata in G Major by Jean-Baptiste Bréval (1753-1823), composed in 1783 as Op.12 No 5, one of a set of six sonatas. A 'cellist himself, Bréval wrote a good deal for the instrument, including concertos, sonatas and duets. The sonata gave the 'cellist a real "work-out", requiring the player in each of the movements to inhabit the instrument's upper registers for a good deal of the time. It was a task Robert Ibell performed with aplomb, the occasional strained passage mattering not a whit in the sweep and excitement of the whole. 

Introduced by his duo partner as "Hammers", Douglas Mews then spoke to us about the Broadwood fortepiano he was using, previously owned by a family in the Shetland Islands, and brought to New Zealand by them in 1874. Perhaps the concert's next item, a piece not listed as being on the programme, but one entitled "Song Without Words" by Mendelssohn, didn't show off the instrument's capabilities to its fullest extent, though both players certainly realized the music's essential lyrical qualities in perfect accord, moving fluently through the pieces brief central agitations to re-establish the ending's serenitites. I wasn't sure at the time whether the piece was a re-working of one of the composer's famous solo piano pieces, or whether it was a true "original" - but my sources have since told me it was a "one-off" written by Mendelssohn for a famous woman cellist Lisa Christiani (who also died young).

What did illustrate the Broadwood fortepiano's capacities was the following item, Mozart's Keyboard Sonata K.330 in C major. If ever a performance illustrated what was often missing from renditions of the same repertoire by pianists using modern pianos, then this was it (an exception being, of course, Emma Sayers' Mozart playing in her recent recital). It wasn't simply the instrument and its beguiling tonal and timbral characteristics, but the playing itself - though like philosophers arguing about the essential differences between body and soul, one can't avoid conjecture and evidence illustrating a kind of "inter-relationship" between the two. So I felt it was here, with Douglas Mews understanding to such an extent the capabilities of his instrument that he was able to inhabit and convey the music's character through these unique tones and articulations to an extent that I've not heard bettered.

Often so difficult to make "speak" on a modern piano, here Mozart's themes and figurations straightaway took on a kind of dynamic quality that suggested something instant, spontaneous and elusive on single notes, and a 'breathed" kind of phrasing with lines, sometimes explosive and volatile, sometimes sinuous and variegated. There was also nothing whatever mechanical about Mews' phrasings and shaping of those lines, nothing machine-like about his chordings or repeated notes. I was struck instead by the music's constant flexibility, as if the old dictum regarding rubato (Italian for "robbed time", a term implying expressive or rhythmic freedom in music performance) - that it was the preserve of Romantic music and musicians - needed urgent updating to include all types of music from all eras.

Some brief remarks about the individual movements - the opening Allegro Moderato was played very freely throughout the development sequence, which I liked, as it gave the music a depth of enquiry, of exploration, and even of questioning, resulting in the music taking on an elusive and even enigmatic quality, contrasting with the exposition's relative straightforwardness of utterance. The Andante Cantabile second movement maintained a kind of improvisatory quality throughout, including a telling ambient change for the minor key episode, one whose shadows were magically dissolved by the return of the opening theme. The player took an extremely rapid tempo for the finale, skipping adroitly through the arpeggiations, and creating what seemed like great surges of instrumental sound at certain points (all in context, of course - Douglas Mews said after the concert to me that he thought Mendelssohn's music was as far into the Romantic era as the instrument could be taken, though we agreed that certain pieces of Schumann could work, rather less of Chopin, and hardly anything of Liszt….)

Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841) featured next on the programme with his Grand Sonata in E-flat Op.5 No.1, the first of a set of three. A contemporary of Beethoven's, whom he met as a fellow-player in the Prince Elector's Court Orchestra in Bonn, Romberg has achieved some dubious fame in musical history by rejecting the former's offer to write a 'cello concerto for him, telling Beethoven he preferred to play his own music. Commentators have wryly remarked that such admirable self-confidence was partly fuelled by Romberg's inability to understand Beethoven's compositions, but, judging by the charm, beauty and excitement of the work we heard played here, no-one need be put off from seeking out and enjoying Romberg's music for what it is. It would be like neglecting the music of Carl Maria Von Weber, simply because he had proclaimed, after hearing Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, that its composer was "fit for the madhouse".

In fact Romberg, judging from contemporary accounts of his playing, was one of the great instrumental virtuosi of the early nineteenth century, exerting an enormous influence on the development of 'cello-playing techniques. HIs qualities as a performer were, naturally enough, reflected here in the 'cello writing - my notes contained scribbled remarks like "arresting opening flourishes, with attractive floating themes shared by both instruments", "a soaring second subject leading to exciting runs from both 'cello and fortepiano", and in the development, "plenty of energy and excitement". The Andante second movement had an almost fairground aspect with its musical-box-like tune, from which came a number of variations. Then, the finale took us out into the fields and along country lanes at a brisk clip, the playing dynamic and in places hair-raising in its virtuosity, especially on the 'cellist's part. There were even some Beethoven-like chords set ringing forth at one of the cadence-points, along with other individual touches, Douglas Mews bringing out in another place a lovely "lower-toned edge" to the timbres.

By this stage of the evening the wind outside was making its presence felt, with its moaning and gustings, and rattlings and creakings of various parts of the church roof - all adding to the ambience, I might add, and not inappropriate to the evening's final item, Beethoven's F-Major Op.5 'Cello Sonata, the first of two in the set. Amid all of the aforementioned atmospheric effects we heard a most arresting introduction to the work, the players seeming to challenge one another's spontaneous responses with each exchange, building the tensions to the point where the reservoir of pent-up energies seemed to bubble over spontaneously into the Allegro's sheer delight. With the development came some dramatic harmonic exploration (probably one of the passages which made the aforementioned Romberg feel uneasy), the music easing back into the "home-key" with the resolve of a navigator picking his way through a storm, at which arrival-point Douglas Mews hit a glorious wrong note on the fortepiano with tremendous élan, one which I wouldn't have missed for all the world! The recall of the movement's slow introduction and its just-as-peremptory dismissal were also treasurable moments.

The players took a brisk tempo for the Rondo, notes flashing by with bewildering rapidity, Beethven's inventiveness in the use of his four-note motif astonishing! I loved the "schwung" generated by both players in the second, pizzicato-accompanied theme, and the wonderfully resonant pedal-point notes from Robert Ibell's cello a little later, in the midst of the music's vortex-like churnings (more disquiet from Romberg's quarter, here, perhaps?). After some improvisatory-like musings from both instruments near the music's end (even the wind outside seemed in thrall to the music-making at this point!), the coda suddenly drove home the coup de grace, fanfares and drumbeats sounding the triumphant return.

Douglas Mews and Robert Ibell plan to take this programme for a South Island tour later in the year, having already visited several North Island venues. I would urge people on the Mainland to watch all spaces for "Hammers and Horsehair" - a delightful evening's music-making.

Review of Tauranga concert

Eighteenth Century Sound

Review by Prof Barry Vercoe Mus D


Informality ruled at Hammers and Horsehair - the second of Tauranga Musica’s concerts at Tauranga Park Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.

The event had no clear beginning. Instead, the large audience found performers already playing amongst candelabra and leather couches in an eighteenth century drawing room.

First up was Douglas Mews on Fortepiano, successor to the plucked-string harpsichord and imported to Wellington in the 1840’s. It was still a quiet instrument, and when joined by Robert Ibell on a mature ‘cello the two skilled musicians had to work to find balance.

Yet the program they brought was fascinating. A Mozart keyboard Sonata sounded much the same as it might have before his death in 1791.

The first of Beethoven’s Cello sonatas (1796) received a highly musical “period” performance.

And a beautiful Song Without Words by Mendelssohn echoed the year 1843 in which this Pianoforte was actually built.

The surprise of the day was a Sonata by Bernhard Romberg, a close friend of Beethoven. In a letter between them Romberg cheekily stated he preferred his own music. This had some justification, for his sonata had 90% of the skill of his contemporary and was pure delight.

Bravo Tauranga Musica for bringing things like this to town.

The next concert of the series is on August 7 at Boys’ College Graham Young Theater.